Does This Life Matter?

Many of you are doubtless familiar with the object lesson in which you hold up a rope or a long string, and point to a tiny bit in the middle as representing this life, with eternity stretching in both directions, both before and after it. We did this more than once in church classes when I was a teenager, as a way of emphasizing the importance of having an eternal perspective. In Mormon cosmology, mortal life is just a speck of time, infinitesimal in comparison to the eternities.

What’s often struck me in contemplating this is that there are competing narratives in Mormonism about the significance of this life. One is that this life matters tremendously. It’s everything. The decisions you make here will affect you eternally. This perspective is deeply grounded in Book of Mormon teachings—to give just one example, “For behold, this life is the time for men to prepare to meet God; yea, behold the day of this life is the day for men to perform their labors.” (Alma 34:32) The Book of Mormon does not indicate any belief in postmortal second chances—you have to choose God here. Your eternal destiny hangs in the balance.

The picture gets muddied a bit, of course, by Joseph Smith’s later teaching that people in the spirit world could choose to accept the gospel after death. My impression is that the standard approach today is to say that this postmortal second chance only applies to people who didn’t have the opportunity to accept the gospel in this life, which has of course led to some convoluted discussion about just what it means to have had your chance (e.g., if you turn away the LDS missionaries, is that it for you?) D&C 76 is usually interpreted to mean that those who procrastinate the day of their repentance to the next life can hope to do no better than the terrestrial kingdom.

An interesting side effect of the LDS theology underlying baptism for the dead is that at least from one perspective, there really isn’t all that much urgency about sharing the gospel with the world. It’s not as if people are going to be damned if they don’t hear it. In fact, one might ask, wouldn’t it maybe be easier to wait and just preach it in the life to come? The intense missionary impulse present in Mormonism seems somewhat at odds with a theology in which you can convert in the next life, too. I suspect that this is one reason why Mormonism takes a more positive than negative approach in its proselytizing efforts, in terms of emphasizing the benefits that church membership can bring, rather than focusing on how you need to turn to Christ to avoid hell.

Another wrinkle in this has to do with children who die before the age of accountability (which, especially when you look at world history, is a significant percentage of all the people who’ve come to earth), and who are said to be guaranteed a ticket to the celestial kingdom. What was the purpose of this life for them? It doesn’t seem that the usual answers—to be tested, to see if you’ll follow God’s commands, to learn and develop—hold up very well. The idea I’ve heard most commonly is that it’s all about getting a body, even if only for a few seconds in some instances, but I have trouble making sense of that.

But what I find the most striking—and puzzling—aspect of all of this is the strange disconnection in which when we’re talking about moral decision-making with eternal consequences, this life is said to be absolutely vital—but when we’re talking about suffering and difficulties, this life is said to not be that big of a deal. Perhaps the most prominent example of the latter is an oft-cited comment by Boyd K. Packer that a woman dealing with abuse needs to know that “her trials—however hard to bear—in the eternal scheme of things may be compared to a very, very bad experience in the second semester of the first grade.”1 This sort of approach also shows up again and again when the situation of single people and gay people is discussed—they are exhorted to “have an eternal perspective” on their situation, which is often code for, “hope that things will be better when you’re dead.” The essential learning and growth that many Latter-day Saints see as coming only from marriage and raising children is, for a significant number of people, delayed to the next life, and we are left scrambling to figure out a life purpose for those who don’t fit the mold. This is an area where LDS theology is quite frankly woefully underdeveloped.

My question is, to use Packer’s framework: what sense does it make to have our eternal fate rest upon decisions we made in the second semester of first grade? We would find it preposterous to hold people accountable for the rest of their lives for what they did as first-graders, to say that they could never again alter the path they chose at age six. Does it really make sense to point to this life as just a tiny sliver of eternity, and then say that our situation for the rest of eternity depends on what we do here? I’ve never bought into notion held by some traditional Christians that your decisions in the context of mortal time can result in eternal (in the sense of neverending) punishment. Now matter how awful you were in this life, I simply can’t see how it could possibly be just to torture you forever. So even though I think D&C 19 is a bit sneaky, with its redefinitions of “endless” and “eternal” (is God really saying, oh that was just a giant fake-out?), I like the theology. On the other hand, I think that similar issues come up if you say that people are placed forever in the kingdom where they end up, which is why I’m happy to see that the doctrine of progression between kingdoms seems to be making a bit of a comeback.2

So in the context of LDS teachings, does this life matter? I’m not sure you can have it both ways, and say that it’s not that big of a deal and you just need an eternal perspective because this life doesn’t matter all that much when dealing with horrific questions of human suffering, or with people whose life doesn’t follow the “ideal” narrative—and then turn around and say, oh but this life is all-important when it comes to the eternal consequences of what you do here.

  1. See “Talk to the All-Church Coordinating Council,” By Elder Boyd K. Packer, May 18, 1993. He is saying this in the context of denouncing feminism, which he says will not bring the “enduring peace” that an eternal perspective can. []
  2. See J. Stapley’s recent post at BCC, especially the last paragraph. []

8 comments / Add your comment below

  1. Agency always applies. To everyone everywhere. Of course, some agents try to control other agents and some agents let themselves be so controlled. So to me each moment of existence matters, including this life and this moment in this life.

  2. This is an excellent point, Lynnette. I had never noticed this discrepancy. But what you say totally makes sense. Either this life is a big deal, or it isn’t. You’re more charitable than I am, so you probably didn’t immediately leap to this, but my suspicion is that people like Boyd K. Packer think that of course this life is really important, and all the hand waving about how people’s suffering now doesn’t matter is just an attempt to avoid the reality that suffering really does hurt and it really does matter and we really should try to do something about it.

  3. Growing up the plan of salvation made such sense. Then as I grew into a teenager it seemed that it actually explained some things that other religions didn’t have such a great answer. But as I moved into adulthood it started making less sense – or probably I would have to say it didn’t seem to explain the world in the way I saw it. Eventually I look at it as a way for way too many people to be sure they are going to be the best after this life and if someone else is hurting in this life – they decided to come to earth fully knowing that they would have this trial. It is a way to get out of feeling bad for others in less fortunate situations. That has fueled the move of Mormon’s to the “uncaring right” (not all are uncaring, but the trend is unmistakable in my view).

  4. I’ve thought about this for some time. My current thinking (subject to revision, of course) is that “no this life really doesn’t matter.”

    Much like any one individual can’t matter when there are 6 billion humans on the planet, 60-80 years on this planet can’t compare in meaningfulness to billions of years of existence.

    If there is a genius to Mormonism, I’d say it may be in holding that paradox: that an individual matters (despite being one-in-many-billions) and that our current day matters, despite having similar long odds.

    We’ve always had an odd balance of fatalism and optimism. It’s a curious navigation to live daily, an ordinary life, with an eternal perspective.

    Thanks for the post!

  5. I’ve been think and writing about this too. The Book of Mormon’s answer to the age-old soteriological problem of evil (what about those who never heard of Jesus in this life) is completely unsatisfactory, so it went through at least a four-stage development that has been outlined very well by Charles Harrell in “This Is My Doctrine.” We finally landed at baptism for the dead and missionary work in the hereafter. But this doctrine doesn’t answer all the questions well, as you have pointed out. Your question is valid. What is the purpose of this life, really? There seem to be exceptions to every pat answer.

  6. So when it comes to treating the theology literally, I’m as struck by this paradox as you are (and I love the way you reapplied the 2nd grade metaphor).

    But if I step back and think about it less literally, I think the paradox *does* seem to fairly represent two apparently paradoxical aspects of being human — I am simultaneously the product of a past shaped in part by my own decisions and also living in an ephemeral moment whose importance isn’t clear and may not be remembered.

    When I was in 1st & 2nd grade, I was deeply interested in Greek mythology, and read anything that I could get my hands on that was age appropriate (and tried to read a few things that weren’t). Same thing with codes/ciphers/secret writing. One thing you might say is that by exercising those focuses I was building certain kinds of things into a young brain and shaping it in a way, I think, partly to have a familiarity with the shape of certain kinds of stories, partly to have a facility with certain kinds of symbolic manipulation. Those seem to turn out to be facilities that I still have. It might seem strange to connect that with a concept like a “judgment” based off of 2nd grade behavior, but it gets less strange if you use words like “consequence” which you could argue is more or less a non-literal judgment made by reality.

    More broadly, I don’t think many people would dispute that the effects of early childhood development are often enduring for adults, no matter how many things from childhood simply pass forgotten or what capacity for change adults possess.

    Ephemerality: I think about old breakups sometimes. I remember in an almost abstract way how devastating the heartbreak was, but with a distance that makes it seem almost like a story that happened to someone else. There is a *change* in significance, and one could even fairly invoke the term “insignificant” to capture the relative change between the minor place of that story in my mind as I go about my current days oriented on other things entirely vs the immersion in the suffering at the time. But even stories aren’t insignificant. The people who told me at the time I’d get over it and maybe even look back on it and laugh — for the same reasons we invoke “eternal perspective” in church — were right, even as the significance of the stories remains. Maybe it’s the same paradox.

    Exercise, practice of musical instruments: Every individual moment I conscientiously attend to either one seems insignificant, a contribution so marginal that it’s easy to assign it no value, easier to assign it a fleeting or ephemeral one, easy to do something else. Collectively they make the difference between realized and unrealized potential. Not sure this is the same dichotomy as the one we’re talking about in LDS theology, but I think they might be neighbors or acquaintances.

    In short — there’s a lot about life that seems to reflect the same dilemma we’re puzzling over inside the doctrine. Maybe that’s why it’s there?

  7. Lynette, you’ve put into words some questions that sit uncomfortably in the back of my mind. For me the whole plan of salvation is like one of those optical illusion pictures – like the one that looks like an attractive young woman, and when you stare at it long enough it becomes the old hag. That sounds more negative than I mean it to. What I’m trying to say is that the doctrines that used to seem straightfoward and fair enough to me now seem pretty fraught and unsatisfactory. You’ve pointed out many of them. I guess my only response is to say yeah, it’s pretty hard to see how all this matters, pretty hard to see what salvation even really means, and pretty hard to see how it could be fairly applied.

  8. Lovely post, Lynette. I think this dichotomy also fuels some of the conformist nature of Mormonism. The Plan lays out one specific life course and one only, and that should be pretty hard for a universalist religion like Mormonism to sustain over time, but “eternal perspective” is a safety valve to let off some of the pressure. It’s coded language that means “we can’t doctrinally reconcile the obvious presence of outliers who don’t fit our Master Plan, so we’ll just throw an asterisk on there that means people who don’t fit The Plan will magically fit it in the next life.”

    I think in some ways it also limits empathy because many Mormons can’t begin to imagine why someone may not want this specific life course, and they don’t have to work and develop that ability to see as another sees when they can just say “they’ll want it in the next life.”


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